Catholic social teaching includes consistent ethic of life

| Father Dan Griffith | October 21, 2015 | 1 Comment


On his recent apostolic journey to the United States, Pope Francis conveyed to the American people the importance of living a consistent ethic of life. For example, the Holy Father touched on this important dimension of Catholic social teaching in his address to Congress, where he reminded its members to “protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” The following day at the United Nations, Pope Francis called all member nations to a “respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered part of a statistic.”

The promotion of a consistent ethic of life is a powerful means by which the Catholic Church can evangelize the United States and help build a more just and humane society. Catholic social teaching has often been described as the Church’s “best kept secret” because its doctrine is either not known by average Catholics or is misunderstood. Principles of Catholic social teaching are derived from Scripture, including the teachings and witness of Christ, the tradition of the Church, precepts of the natural law and experience.

The two meta-principles of Catholic social teaching are the dignity of the human person and the common good. The dignity of the human person flows from the truth that every human life is created in the image and likeness of God and thus an inherent and inviolable sacredness attends all human life. The common good, as taught by the Second Vatican Council, is the sum total of conditions in society that bring about human flourishing — or as Pope Francis might say, conditions that allow for integral human development. The main goal of Catholic social teaching is to offer ethical and moral principles that further the common good and the attainment of what is just.

Catholic social teaching is, by its very nature, centered on the dignity of persons and the common good, and thus teaches and promotes a consistent ethic of life. This means that the Church is concerned with all those societal issues and circumstances that affect human beings and their quality of life.

A preeminent issue of life and justice in the United States is the protection of those in the womb — the unborn. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI taught clearly that advocacy for the rights and dignity of persons must first be founded on the right to life and protection of the unborn. Abortion is of preeminent concern because of the gravity of the act, the vulnerability of the victim, the scope of abortions, and the deleterious effects of abortion on individuals and society.

When addressing this issue, the Church must teach clearly about its grave nature but must also support troubled pregnancies and extend forgiveness and mercy to those who have experienced the pain of abortion. Here in the archdiocese, Abria Pregnancy Resources and Rachel’s Vineyard offer, respectively, support for life in the womb and healing from the pain of abortion.

The Catholic Church’s concern for the dignity of persons does not end with advocacy for children in the womb. t can be seen at all stages of life, especially where life is most vulnerable. Yes, abortion is a preeminent life issue. So too, poverty, homelessness, education, immigration, stem-cell research, the commodification of babies, the good of marriage and the family, religious liberty, human trafficking, the death penalty, racism, assisted suicide and the environment are also important life issues. These are issues that go to the very heart of the dignity of the human person, the common good and human flourishing.

Thus, the Church takes up its duty to advocate for respecting life at all points along its continuum. The perennial challenge for Catholics is to resist the temptation to fit the Church’s social teaching into our already held political positions. My hope is that all Catholics would be open to the challenge of Catholic social teaching to transform us and our beliefs so that we can authentically promote a consistent ethic of life and help evangelize our society.

Father Griffith, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, parochial administrator of St. Boniface, a faculty member of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and a Fellow of the Terrance J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy.

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Category: Commentary

  • Charles C.

    Thank you, Father Griffith, for your faithfulness and service to the Church.

    Might I ask for clarification?
    “Yes, abortion is a preeminent life issue.”
    The dictionaries I’ve consulted give the following definitions for “preeminent.”

    “having paramount rank, dignity, or importance”
    “eminent above or before others;”
    “Superior to or notable above all others;”

    You couldn’t have meant by “preeminent” what those dictionaries do. You sandwich a list of issues with “So, too,” “are also.” What conclusion am I supposed to reach other than that you are saying that they are all “preeminent?” I don’t understand.

    If 14 different issues are identified, how can they all be preeminent? But let’s assume that you meant they are all equally important, then there’s no reason to think you’ve identified any as more important.

    Education, immigration, and the environment, are all equally important to abortion?

    But abortion is different from the other issues in an important way. The Church has said, with a very small space for the rarist exception, abortion is wrong. That’s it, it’s over. Roma locuta, causa finita.

    All of the rest of the issues require some debate over what the issues involve, or what is the best way of accomplishing the good. Or consider “the environment.” Nobody knows what that means. Litter? Global warming? Peak oil? We don’t even know if there is global warming. (There doesn’t seem to be, but I’ll be polite.)

    For example, what, precisely is “racism?” One speaker has declared the phrase “Hard worker” to be racist. A college student claims that the word “too” is sexist, because it’s usually applied to women. We don’t know what “racism” means, and it varies from person to person.

    And to some extent, none of those are even issues. Everybody wants a clean environment, education, immigration, etc., etc. The disagreement is how to get there. Now we enter into prudential judgments, or, if you will, political judgments.

    What, good Father, is there to prevent a Catholic from looking at the list of 14 issues and saying, “Since they’re all equal, and I like Party X’s approach to solving eight of the problems, and Party Y’s approach to solving six of the problems, I guess Catholic Social Justice principles, mean I should vote for Party X?”

    I know it sounds extreme, but while your excellent intention was “resist the temptation to fit the Church’s social teaching into our already held political positions,” it appears you have inadvertently presented a 14 point voter’s guide in which each Catholic may maintain a perfectly clean conscience in voting for whomever they already wanted to vote for. (Does that explain why exit polls indicate that a slight majority of Catholics voted for Obama, twice?)

    But, as I say, I’m easily confused and would appreciate further guidance.

    With respect,