Pope Francis and President Obama met in Rome today, and the meeting has naturally generated commentary, both before and after the fact, including by the President himself at the National Prayer Breakfast last month.
I am confident that the meeting itself will bear good fruit. I am not so confident that the commentary about it will bear as much fruit.
What I mean is that I believe we are heading for a media and blogosphere circus in which commentary after commentary will reinforce the error that we can promote “human rights” and “social justice” while ignoring the most fundamental right of the most vulnerable people: the right to life of the children in the womb.
It’s not because I think the Pope or his advisors aren’t fully committed to protecting them. They certainly are. And I have had the privilege of conversing with the Pope about the pro-life efforts of the Church.
But there is a profound contradiction between Obama’s position in favor of abortion and the Church’s position against it, and my concern arises from the fact that so much commentary makes light of this contradiction, either by saying it’s not important, or by pretending it’s not there.
And sometimes this impression is given in commentary even by those who share the Church’s pro-life position.
Miguel Diaz, a Catholic theologian who served as Obama’s ambassador to the Vatican until recently, commented, “Some said that under [Pope John Paul II] and [President Ronald Reagan] there was a meeting of the minds, and it’s potentially true again under Obama and Francis around the issues of social justice.”
But in reality, that is not potentially true at all.
The contradiction between Obama’s position and the Pope’s position on the right to life is a contradiction about the very core and foundation of social justice. Without the right to life, everything else falls. Pope Francis himself made reference to this in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, when he said,
“[D]efense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable…Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.” (n. 213)
Pope John Paul II, about to be canonized as a saint, made a similar point 25 years ago in another Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles Laici,
"[T]he common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination." (n. 38)
And Cardinal Renato Martino, who served as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, that is, the Vatican’s office charged with fostering the understanding and pursuit of social justice within the whole Church, explained,
"The Holy Father speaks of the protection of life as the fundamental realization and respect for human rights. Without that realization, without that respect for the right to life, no other discussion of human rights can continue." (Interview on EWTN, 2004.)
That’s the kind of commentary we need to see about the discussion between the President and the Pope.