To commemorate the March for Life, we are pleased to present a series of essays on the abortion issue, presented from a left Catholic perspective. This is the first.
Abortion is seen primarily as a moral problem. That is, it is conceived of in terms of sin (or delict) first and foremost. And rightly so. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council called it an unspeakable crime (Gaudium et spes no. 51). And so it is. To the extent, furthermore, that abortion features in discussions of politics among Catholics, it is framed in moral terms. That is, Catholics frequently discuss whether or not it is morally licit to vote for a candidate who supports abortion, even if the candidate in other respects holds praiseworthy views. This is largely where the debate stays.
However, such an approach tends to separate the ethical from the political, which is an insupportable division. Politics and ethics are the same thing. I do not mean electoral politics, of course. I mean politics in an Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, which is very different. In short, politics is the creation of a virtuous people through laws (Ethic. X.viii–xv; ST I-II q.95 a.1 co.). Laws are, of course, dictates of practical reason ordered to the common good (ST I-II q.91 a.3 co.; I-II q.96 a.1 co. & ad 2.) This is a point that is often lost in political discussions, even among Catholics. The aim of politics is ultimately virtue and the common good. A given policy or platform is proposed because it bears a rational relationship to virtue and the common good. And, given that the dictates of natural reason are accessible to all men, it is not a matter of ideology, necessarily, to say that a given policy is or is not likely to produce a virtuous people or is or is not rationally related to the common good. Reason is not magic.
Considering abortion in this context, the question is whether laws permitting abortion (or euthanasia) produce a virtuous people or are rationally related to the common good. The first point is trivial: abortion does not produce a virtuous people. Slaughter does not create virtue. The question, then, is whether these laws are rationally related to the common good. This, too, seems like a trivial question. However, a clever interlocutor might frame the matter this: we tolerate for now the unspeakable crime of abortion in order to lead society gradually to virtue (cf. ST I-II q.96 a.2 ad 2). Or he might say that there are certain goods that we would lose through the outright repression of abortion (cf. ST II-II q.10 a.11 co.). Now, Aquinas specifically included murder among the vices that ought to be repressed (ST I-II q.96 a.2 co.). And it is impossible to conceive of a good that we would lose by suppressing abortion outright or a greater evil that would be caused.
But I wish to make another point: abortion is incompatible with true solidarity. And, for this reason, abortion is always and everywhere inimical to the common good. However, in the current stage of capitalism, the only hope for a just settlement of the state, to say nothing of productive property, is a radical politics of solidarity. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, it will be seen that solidarity and the common good are inextricably linked. Second, true solidarity, especially solidarity understood in Christian terms, is the antidote to the individualistic mindset at the core of capitalist exploitation, including the reduction of persons to mere instrumentality. It will be seen that abortion is incompatible with solidarity and, therefore, the common good. The question, then, is how a radical politics of solidarity may be forged in a society that embraces abortion and rejects the common good.
In order to demonstrate my points adequately, it will be necessary to introduce several lengthy quotations from magisterial sources. There is no way around it, as a radical politics of solidarity requires an understanding first of solidarity, which is a term that has specific content in the magisterium. Once the term is rightly understood, the manner in which one employs it radically becomes obvious. However, it is essential to understand the term rightly, as it has been and remains susceptible to abuse, particularly by secular leftists who distort it for their own ends.
In Sollicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical commemorating Bl. Paul VI’s Populorum progressio, the saint explored the concept of solidarity at great length. I begin, therefore, with John Paul’s thought, which has come to define solidarity in magisterial terms. He argued that
It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a “virtue,” is solidarity. (No. 38.)
He immediately drew the essential connection between solidarity and the common good:
This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. (Ibid.)
I note, briefly, that John Paul’s terse definition of the common good is profoundly Thomistic (cf. Charles De Koninck, The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists, in The Writings of Charles De Koninck v.2 [McInerny, ed. 2009], pp. 74–76.) But questions of John Paul’s Thomism may be left for another day. What matters is that John Paul draws a clear connection between solidarity and the common good; indeed, just as “development” is the “new name for peace” in Paul VI’s formulation (cf. Populorum progressio no. 76), for John Paul solidarity is the new name for the common good.
Not content to leave the matter in fairly abstract terms, John Paul sketched a vision of what solidarity looks like in practice:
The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others. (No. 39.)
I observe that, before John Paul’s vision of solidarity is critiqued as reactionary or insufficiently revolutionary, John Paul placed great emphasis on the weaker elements of society claiming their legitimate rights. Indeed, he acknowledged that this process may involve social conflict, but he taught that social conflict, rightly conceived, is aimed at the common good (Centesimus annus no. 14). Turning from that question of rhetoric to the matter at hand, it is clear that John Paul’s vision of solidarity requires the members of a polity to recognize each other as persons.
Indeed, John Paul explicitly stated as much, when he taught that:
Solidarity helps us to see the “other”—whether a person, people or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper” (cf. Gen 2:18-20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God. Hence the importance of reawakening the religious awareness of individuals and peoples. Thus the exploitation, oppression and annihilation of others are excluded. (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39.)
With his treatment in Sollicitudo rei socialis, John Paul made solidarity, as the magisterium understands it, clear. Solidarity requires us to view other people as people, eschewing a view that reduces them to mere instruments. This is ultimately a true commitment to the common good, conceived as the good of each and every member of the polity. And this commitment leads to an open and generous relationship between the members of society.
More recently, Francis speculated even more deeply about the causes of the instrumental view of persons that is so destructive of solidarity. In Laudato si’, his encyclical on care for our common home, the Holy Father observed that
A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay. (No. 122.)
The Holy Father went on to detail numerous consequences of the “misguided anthropocentrism” he identified:
The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. (No. 123.)
While the Holy Father’s language is different, it is plain that he had in mind the issues John Paul raised in Sollicitudo rei socialis. For Francis, anthropocentrism, which joins with a technocratic, power-obsessed paradigm, leads inexorably to practical relativism, and practical relativism leads to the destructive instrumental view of persons. Ultimately, to return to John Paul’s language, it is care for the self above all others—as opposed to the care for others that is at the heart of commitment to the common good—that stands in opposition to solidarity.
It is, therefore, a diseased sense of self and the other that is at the root of any failure of solidarity. Indeed, John Paul made precisely this point in Centesimus annus, noting, “[w]hen man does not recognize in himself and in others the value and grandeur of the human person, he effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefitting from his humanity and of entering into that relationship of solidarity and communion with others for which God created him” (no. 41). By exalting selfishness, particularly in a technocratic paradigm that combines an obsessive focus with convenience with the “cult of unlimited human power,” one closes himself off from the relationships necessary to submit to the common good. And when John Paul wrote that the selfish person “effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefitting from his humanity,” it is impossible not to be reminded of the Thomistic point that human dignity is found only in submitting to the common good (see De Koninck pp. 88–93). The human who rejects true solidarity forfeits his dignity as a human.
Politics rightly conceived requires, we can see, radical solidarity. Recall that Aquinas teaches us that laws are dictates of practical reason ordered to the common good (ST I-II q.91 a.3 co.; I-II q.96 a.1 co. & ad 2.). We now know that solidarity and the common good are inextricably connected. Solidarity, John Paul taught, is a true commitment to the common good (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 38). Indeed, politics rightly conceived is radical solidarity; one must be truly committed to the common good to exercise one’s natural reason to frame laws ordered to the common good. Insincere or insufficient commitment will inevitably lead one’s reason astray, and the laws will cease to be just. For proof of this, one needs only to look at any state dominated by the technocratic, anthropocentric paradigm. Francis precisely delineated the problem when he wrote, “when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (Laudato si’ no. 123). Worse still, when the culture is corrupt and in thrall to practical relativism, the laws will often enshrine the corruption and the relativism. A radical politics of solidarity, a radical politics of the common good—politics rightly conceived—is the only remedy.
However, it is only in Christianity that one finds the foundations for a truly radical politics of solidarity. Returning to Sollicitudo rei socialis, we see:
In the light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimension of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation. One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit. One’s neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren (cf. 1 Jn 3:16). (No. 40.)
In other words, Christianity brings another dimension to the concept. One could, through natural reason, proceed to a place where one views the other as a person, with dignity and equality with every other person. However, Christianity, John Paul argued, takes us a step beyond that, to a place where the other is “the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit” (ibid.). And in that place, we are called to love the other and to sacrifice for his sake. Our submission to the common good, which is ultimately the root of true solidarity, becomes a submission not merely to the temporal common good but also to the spiritual common good. And it is in that submission that we become truly human (cf. De Koninck pp. 88–93.).
It is not necessary to dwell at length on the radical nature of a politics of love and sacrifice. Such a politics is a total rejection of the corrupt liberal state, which idealizes relativism and individualism. However, despite being founded in love, it is not a passive or destructive politics (cf. Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39). It insists, out of love, on the intrinsic value of all persons and on their rights in society. And it opposes, even to the point of sacrifice and conflict, anyone who would diminish the value of those persons or their rights (Centesimus annus no. 14).
With all this in mind, we turn back to abortion with Benedict XVI’s provocative analysis in his social encyclical, Caritas in veritate:
Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual. (No. 28.)
Abortion and euthanasia are fundamentally a refusal to acknowledge the infant in the womb or the elderly or dying person as a person, “to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God” (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39). They are, in this sense, contrary to true solidarity, as John Paul outlined it for us. But recall that John Paul taught that solidarity and care for the common good are inextricably linked; they are, in fact, the same thing. Thus, anything contrary to true solidarity is contrary to the common good. The force, then, of Benedict’s argument is manifest. When a polity “moves toward the denial or suppression of life,” it moves toward a negation of the common good expressed as solidarity.
Compare also John Paul’s fruits of solidarity in Sollicitudo rei socialis (no. 39) with Benedict’s fruits of openness to life. They are essentially the same list. It is obvious why. It is impossible for the stronger to render to the weaker what is theirs by justice if the weakest in society are seen in purely instrumental terms; likewise, it is impossible for the weaker to adopt a healthy attitude toward the common good—neither falling into passivity nor destroying the social fabric—if, in the background of all their decisions, they know that they are ultimately disposable when of no further use. In essence, the common good requires us to view the other as a person, not a tool or an abstraction, but abortion is premised entirely on treating the other as a tool or an abstraction. Openness to life, then, is a necessary part of solidarity and, by extension, the common good.
Likewise, Benedict and Francis are on the same page. A diseased anthropocentrism leads to practical relativism, which finds it expression in many ways. The practical relativism that demands untrammeled capitalism demands also the right to kill children “because they are not what their parents wanted” (Laudato si’ no. 123). For example, it is impossible, once this practical relativism finds a voice, for wealthy people to find solidarity with poor people and work toward “virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound” (Caritas in veritate no. 28). In other words, rapacious capitalism and a right to abortion are inextricably linked: if the baby is not a person, but an abstraction or an instrumentality, what hope does the worker have? Indeed, one can say that abortion and predatory capitalism, as Francis argued in Laudato si’, are two sides of the same coin.
A politics founded on Christian solidarity is obviously radical, nowhere more obviously so than in the context of abortion. We have seen that solidarity that ignores the unborn is no solidarity at all; indeed, it is a grotesque parody of solidarity, warped and demented in the hateful service of an unspeakable crime. It is, so far from a commitment to the common good, an assault on the very idea of the common good. And no Christian can make such an assault. The child in the womb—no less than oneself—is the living image of the Father, as John Paul taught, capable of being redeemed by the blood of Christ through baptism. The Christian, therefore, must love the child in the womb as God loves him or her, including standing ready to sacrifice much for that child. And if social conflict is necessary, that, too, is an expression of the concern for the common good and the love that the Christian must hold.
It is only in that sacrifice that we can forge the radical politics of solidarity—the politics of love—that is necessary to move past the failed liberal paradigm.